Christmas songs in the spotlight
From Enya's dulcet tones to Faith Hill's powerhouse vocals to a surprisingly pretty singing saw, peace on earth arrives in tune.
FAITH HILL: 'JOY TO THE WORLD' (Warner Bros., $18.98)
O come, all ye Faith Hill fans and behold the queen of country's most crossover record yet. "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" gets a full-on Rodgers and Hammerstein treatment that suggests Hill would fare well on a Broadway stage. "O Come, All Ye Faithful" approximates an aria. And Hill even sounds like a rogue member of Celtic Woman on an Irish arrangement of "What Child Is This?" About the closest this album comes to a Nashville sound are the fiddle and banjo accents on "Away in a Manger." Mostly, it's an old-fashioned blockbuster production with big bands, orchestras, and more choirs than you could fit into the Mormon Tabernacle. Unfortunately, several big numbers are wildly overblown. But the album is mostly a triumph for the powerhouse vocalist, and she brings a graceful swing to numbers such as "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland."
ENYA: 'AND WINTER CAME...' (Reprise Records, $18.98)
It's a wonder that Enya has taken this long to release a Christmas album given that her voice is naturally suited to hymns and chorales. The "queen of serene" delivers a stunning rendition of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," one of the two traditional carols here, and her voice is as delicate as a snowflake on "Stars and Midnight Blue," a new composition. Bonus points to Ireland's bestselling solo artist for coming up with original material rather than simply regurgitating Christmas standards. Kudos, too, on the album's first single, "Trains and Winter Rains," which is as hummable as "Orinoco Flow." On the downside, "And Winter Came..." sounds just like every other Enya song, right down to the dated keyboard sounds. And one wishes she'd tackle something unexpectedly upbeat like, say, "Jingle Bell Rock."
Crow's Christmas album, available at Hallmark, is as warm as a yuletide log. Chalk that up to the bluesy guitars, lush strings, chipper horns, Booker T's organ, and the direction of Bill Bottrell, the producer of Crow's debut record and her recent "Detours." But, most of all, the cozy vibe radiates from Crow. The singer sounds supremely relaxed and her phrasing on the torch song "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is exquisite. Crow does get to cut loose once or twice. The hooky "Merry Christmas, Baby," which floats as effortlessly as Santa's reindeer, is a fine belter. If Crow stumbles slightly on "O Holy Night," which sounds overly earnest, she rebounds on an original, piano-led composition, "There is a Star That Shines Tonight." Crow's own star burns brightest on this collection.
YO-YO MA & FRIENDS: 'SONGS OF JOY AND PEACE' (Sony, $18.98)
Like so many Christmas albums before it, most of Yo-Yo Ma's holiday album was recorded in June. Even so, it effortlessly captures the spirit of December. Ma's selections reflect the many musical paths the cellist has traveled, from the Silk Road of China to the trails of Appalachia, making this a truly diverse album. Ma's guest list ranges from the PBS telethon set – James Taylor, Chris Botti, and Diana Krall – to virtuoso musicians such as saxophonist Joshua Redman, clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, and mandolin player Chris Thile. But while the lineup makes for a musical potpourri, the 22 tracks are often so tastefully polite that they cry out for a sprinkling of nutmeg. There are notable exceptions. Alison Krauss's haunting "The Wexford Carol" holds one's attention rapt as Natalie MacMaster's fiddle and Christina Pato's mournful bagpipes trace the ancient links between Celtic music and American bluegrass.
JULIAN KOSTER: 'THE SINGING SAW AT CHRISTMASTIME' (Merge Records, $14.98)
And now for something completely different: A holiday album created entirely on a saw. Julian Koster, leader of the highly experimental underground band called The Music Tapes, uses the carpenter tool to create ingenious versions of "Silent Night," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." The melodies sound like a cross between a whistle and a theremin, and they're surprisingly pretty. As novelty holiday records go, this one easily trumps anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks or heavy-metal Christmas songs by Twisted Sister. So let's say this for Julian Koster: He came, he saw, and he conquered.